Lessons Of Hope From Afghan Schoolchildren, Six Years Later
Editor's Note: NPR photojournalist David Gilkey and journalist Zabihullah "Zabi" Tamanna were killed in 2016 while on assignment in Afghanistan's Helmand Province. In 2015, they reported on this visual narrative.
In the spring of 2015, NPR sent a team to embed with Afghan forces to witness the start of a new era.
A few months prior, the Afghan military regained control over the country after the U.S. and NATO forces officially ended their combat missions.
Rebecca Hersher was there as a producer, with reporter Tom Bowman, photojournalist David Gilkey, and Afghan interpreter Zabihullah "Zabi" Tamanna.
"So here we were in Kabul," Hersher says, "and it's this really weird time in Afghanistan where, in theory, the Afghan government and military are in charge, in a way they haven't been for a really long time. But the war is definitely still going."
After three tough weeks embedded with Afghan forces, Bowman returned as planned to the U.S., but Hersher and Gilkey decided to stay in Kabul a bit longer to look for a different, more positive perspective to mark the country's transition. So they set out to interview the cheeriest group they could think of: children.
"It felt, honestly, like it had been like a tough few weeks in terms of hope," Hersher says. "And what better way to find that hope than speak to some kids?
Tamanna found Tanweer School in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in Kabul. The headmaster welcomed the team, and Gilkey set up cameras.
Some of the teens spoke English and Tamanna interpreted for the younger kids. The children talked about their dreams. Many of them said they wanted to be leaders for a peaceful Afghanistan, whatever their careers may be. Most of the girls, even as teens, already had more education than their mothers did.
The result was an immersive multimedia essay, entitled "Teenage Dreams," which published on NPR.com later in 2015.
Watching the project now, in 2021 — with U.S. forces recently gone, the Taliban ruling the country, with citizens and special immigrant visa holders desperately try to evacuate, and as bombs kill and maim dozens of people — it's a bittersweet time capsule.
"It's very hard to look at this project now and feel hopeful about where these kids' lives are headed in Afghanistan," Hersher says. It's been six years, so the kids are now teens and young adults. "There is no peaceful Afghanistan, there is no democratic Afghanistan," Hersher says. "And the country's collapsing around them."
There's another layer of sadness to viewing the project now, that's not immediately apparent. Tamanna and Gilkey were killed the following year while on assignment in Afghanistan's Helmand Province.
You can see Tamanna in the "Teenage Dreams" video, wearing a blue shirt and directing the kids where to stand and where to look. And the beautiful visuals are quintessential Gilkey. "When I look at it from a personal place," Hersher says, "what I see is the two of them doing really excellent work. And then a bunch of kids giving their honest selves to a bunch of strangers."
And yet, there might still be a glimmer of hope to glean from watching the project now. "This is a new moment for the Taliban," Hersher points out. "The population they are going to try to exert control over is very different."
In particular, the women. The girls who were teens in 2015 are now well-educated adults, says Hersher and "who knows what they will be able to do with that."
And it wasn't as if the Afghanistan of 2015 was in a peaceful state; the country felt bleak back then too, Hersher says. And yet, the kids had dreams and plans for successful, peaceful, and happy lives.
"It does make you wonder, there's such upheaval at this moment. But in two months or five months, what will it look like inside schoolyards?" says Hersher. "Will there be other kids who are expressing hope for their futures, despite everything?"
See more photos and videos in this visual interactive on Afghan schools.
Melody Rowell is a writer and podcast producer living in Kansas City, Mo. You can follow her on Twitter @MelodyRowell.
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